PhoneTell taps Web for proper mobile caller ID

Wish your mobile phone's caller ID was like the kind you can get from landline phones? A new app from PhoneTell does just that.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read

Besides the wheel, fire, and air conditioning during the month of August, caller ID is on the short list of life-changing inventions. Though its one hang-up (no pun intended) is that its directory of phone numbers, which is attached to names and readily available for landline phones, has not been carried over to mobile phones. Instead, mobile-phone users get numbers only.

One company that's helping to change that is PhoneTell, which is launching at Monday's TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York. Formerly CallSpark (which debuted at last year's DemoFall) PhoneTell aims to help you figure out who's calling your phone, even if they're not in your own personal phone book.

To accomplish such a feat, PhoneTell maintains its own directory of 200 million contacts from sources including the yellow pages and white pages, Yelp, OpenTable, and Zagat. The company also has a graylist that's made up of known telemarketers. More importantly though, its system can tap into various services you're a part of, like Gmail, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, to grab contacts behind a log in.

To plug into the directory, mobile-phone users need to install a software application that runs in the background and pops up to check unrecognized numbers every time you get a call. If it's one of the numbers in PhoneTell's directory, this information pops up in just a few seconds as long as you've got a cellular data connection.

PhoneTell can do a number of things to augment your mobile-phone experience like telling you who's calling (even if they're not in your phone book), giving you a quick way to send them a message if you missed their call, and built-in, location-aware search in the dialer. PhoneTell / CNET

Beyond the incoming phone call lookup, the application can also augment your phone's dialer. On the Android version, which CNET got access to Friday, it runs as its own app which you use instead of Android's native phone dialer. The two share the same list of favorites, as well as the call log. What PhoneTell adds to the equation is a search box that taps into your location to find you nearby services. If you've used Google's MyLocation-enabled search on a mobile phone recently, the experience here is quite similar, except that this lives outside the browser, and right where you're planning to make outgoing calls.

Android users can scan here to download PhoneTell.

One neat trick that's worth mentioning, is that if you decide to not answer an incoming phone call the service pops up with a dialog that lets you send that caller a text message telling them why you didn't pick up. There's even the option to create custom messages for specific people, so you can send either a business or personal one depending on who's calling. Even better, the system can be set to remind you to call these people back later on, which will add an event to your phone's calendar, complete with a reminder and that person's phone number so you don't have to remember a thing.

At launch--er, re-launch--the company will have an app for Android users, which is already live on the Android Marketplace. In about a month the company plans to release a version for iPhone users that won't be able to do the same caller ID magic for inbound calls, but brings the geo-based search complete with a dialer. BlackBerry users will also soon be getting a version that can run in the background, just like on Android.

See also: DialPlus and Verizon's City ID service.